Maybe the problem is that rape is an extension of military culture. And it's metastasizing, even as legislation to address it stays trapped in congressional subcommittee.
Scandals and outrage come and go, but rape is ever-present. In 2011, a Pentagon report estimated that 19,000 sexual assaults had occurred in the U.S. military, of which barely 3,000 were reported because of the stigma and risk involved in doing so. The "I own you" system of military justice traditionally turns on the victim far more than the accused. That year, in response to the shocking statistics, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced a bill that would, among other things, remove the investigation of rape cases from the military chain of command, which has far more interest in ignoring the problem than prosecuting it.
Now a new Pentagon report is out, estimating that 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in the U.S. military in 2012, with, once again, just over 3,000 incidents reported. And Speier's legislation has been sitting the whole time in the House Armed Services Committee, denied even a hearing.
"The military doesn't want this and the committee tends to be very deferential to what the military wants," Speier told Northern California public TV station KQED. "This is one of those issues where what the military wants is not good enough for all the men and women in the military who want to serve without being jumped by a sexual predator in the night."
Note that Speier's legislation is several steps removed from actually identifying and eliminating the root causes of military rape -- which Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, called a "plague" that needs to be addressed "swiftly and decisively." Speier's bill would simply allow victims to report the crime in relative safety, a fairly basic precondition for after-the-fact justice.
The current system puts investigation and prosecution into the hands of commanding officers, who often enough have a powerful interest in maintaining the façade that everything is fine; and women and men who have the audacity to report sexual assault muddy that façade, often putting their own careers in jeopardy. Away from the spotlight of public scandal, those in power have no interest in changing the system.
But sexual assault scandals don't go away. So far this month, three military officers tasked with sexual assault prevention -- at the Army's Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Hood, Texas, along with the leader of the Air Force's branch of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program -- have themselves been arrested for sexual misconduct or stalking. Their arrests, combined with the release of the Pentagon's report indicating an enormous rise in what, a year previously, had already been a shockingly high estimate of sexual assault occurrences in the military, has once again triggered public and political outrage.
I repeat: In 2011, the Pentagon's own estimate put the number of sexual assaults that year at 19,000. In 2012, it rose to 26,000.
Taking the rape reporting process out of the chain of command and creating an investigative office outside the Defense Department, while no doubt a good idea, strikes me as being an inadequate response to the phenomenon. That even such a relatively minor, reasonable change is, apparently, impossible to accomplish gives it a certain cachet in the discussion. It's the idea that politicians and the media have focused on for two successive scandal cycles, keeping the discussion from becoming a deeper look at the root causes.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) did tell MSNBC that a policy of zero tolerance toward rape isn't good enough. What we need, she said, is "zero occurrence." Amen, senator, but what are the steps we must take to bring this about?
Like suicide, sexual assault is skyrocketing in the military. Why? Could it be that the problem is deeply structural? Could it be that it's related to the domination culture the military embodies, not to mention the brutally immoral, pointless wars we've been waging for the past decade-plus? Could it have something to do with the idea that what goes around comes around?
In 2011, after the earlier scandal, when Speier first proposed her legislation, I wrote:
Maybe it's time to look at the values themselves -- beginning with those of our military culture, which is the model, and indeed the metaphor, for every other form of domination culture: The prime value is winning, achieving dominance over some sort of enemy or 'other.' Around this core of dominance, we construct a fortress of honor, righteousness, cleanliness of mind and spirit. We revere the fortress, but in its dark interior, our natural impulses are ungoverned and often manifest themselves in perverse mockery of the values we salute.
In a culture based on winning, the rapist is the "winner." Maybe that's the problem. And it permeates not just personal behavior but national policy.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.
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